Nathan McCall: Obama Took Us Back in Time

Come Tuesday, millions of Americans will gather around their TV sets, eager to catch the big rematch between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
I tell you no lie. I will be counted among the more nervous viewers.
I might just spend debate night perched on a barstool, drinking beer.

Yes, Joe Biden’s feisitness in last week’s vice presidential debate helped boost my morale a little. But after more than a week, I still haven’t fully recovered from Obama’s poor showing in the first contest.

I admit to initially being at a loss as to why Obama’s performance felt so deeply personal. Then, after speaking with other African Americans who were similarly despondent, the thing crystallized: While most viewers simply saw Romney on TV, gamely taking the brawl to an ill-prepared Obama, many blacks of a certain age watched the spectacle through the prism of a painful past.

It’s true that Democrats of all colors and persuasions were disappointed. Beyond that, African Americans’ very visceral reactions reveal just how powerful the weight of history is stamped in our heads.

For me, as for many blacks, there was something eerie about the overall look and tone of the exchanges between the two men in the debate. It had little to do with the substance of what was or wasn’t said. Maybe it stemmed from the lingering throb of history, reflected in the unsettling images that were projected on the screen.

Never mind that the issue of race was not raised once in the entire debate. It was there, underscored particularly by the two contestants’ body language. Put bluntly, it was the troubling spectacle of a white man seemingly chastising an African American, who constantly gazed down at the podium, as if hanging his head.

As the debate wore on, the effect was cumulative: We watched Obama averting his eyes while Romney glared at him. Then we watched him nodding as Romney seemed to lecture.

“It almost looked like Obama was subservient,” said Calvin Roberts, of DeKalb County, Georgia.

Like Roberts, I am a child of the ‘70s. If the president’s tentative demeanor rattled us, imagine how it impacted those of my parents’ generation, whose lives were colored by racial humiliation.

“That’s all everyone has been talking about,” said my mother, Lenora Alvin, 75, who watched from Portsmouth, Virginia. “I told myself, ‘I don’t wanna have to go through this.’ I started to turn off the TV.”

The disappointment was compounded by the irony of a power dynamic amazingly turned on its head. As president of these United States, Obama is presumed the most powerful man on the planet. Yet there he was projecting the more timid persona.

Janae Moore, of Prince Georges County, Maryland, was so upset by the scene that she was unable to settle down for some time afterward. Likewise, I required a big glass of wine to get to sleep that night.

In a sense, some African Americans’ anguish over the president’s performance reveals an internal conflict that, even after four years of an Obama administration, remains unresolved. Until the debate, many blacks applauded the president’s laid back demeanor, even as white politicians treated him with open disdain.

Obama’s cool manner, some argue, has enabled him to dodge being labeled a stereotypical angry black man. During the debate, however, even some of the staunchest proponents of cool got hot under the collar. Some grew frustrated when Obama failed to launch even a mild counteroffensive against Romney’s relentless attacks.

It was as if fighting for his honor was akin to fighting for our honor. That’s what made it so personal.

But really, is it fair that one man should be called upon to bear the burdens and aspirations of an entire race? Apparently, as it relates to perception and the first black president, fair judgment and all that goes right out the window.

Surely, Obama is smart enough to have had a notion of what he was signing up for when he took the job. Still, with all the insight in the world he could not have fully comprehended how much his political ascendency would mean to African Americans, in both symbolic and concrete terms.

If he wasn’t fully aware before Oct. 3 of the complex and layered ways that he “represents” for black folks, Obama surely gets it now. In recent interviews, the president has said he was “too polite” during the first debate. Let’s hope that signals his intent to show up Tuesday and throw some major verbal blows.

I do hope he “brings it” to Romney, the entitled fat cat who has shown utter contempt for the very people he’s campaigning to lead.

“I’m sure the next one will be better,”  Calvin Roberts said, “because it can’t get no worse.”

Maybe I won’t be so nervous after all.

Nathan McCall is a New York Times best-selling author of a groundbreaking autobiography, Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man In America. He served as an award-winning reporter at The Washington Post. McCall is a senior lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at Emory University. He also has written two other books: What’s Going On; and his first novel, titled Them.


Back to top